Are you really an expert?

This post is another one that is the result of a bunch of factors coming together. It started with the infamous Shane Fazen knife defense video from a while ago. Then there was a conversation about “internet experts” on a private mailing list I’m on. But what brought it all together was an exchange I had on Twitter with Pat Flynn. I’ll explain all of this in a bit and then try to bring it together into the point I want to make.

Let’s get started with the knife video. Take a look at this first:

First of all, I like Shane. I think his intentions are good; he always mentions avoidance and only fighting in self-defense. Second, the basic advice he gives in this video isn’t bad per se. It’s only when he shows that crescent kick that it turns sour. I’m not a big fan of critiquing other people’s videos but this one, I’m willing to step up and call bullshit. There are a number of reasons why I say so:

  • The kick is slow. It has to come up relatively high until it connects with the guy’s hand.
  • It lacks power. The straight-legged crescent kick is not a strong technique when performed at this height. You can get more power if you kick higher but that also makes it more difficult. There are ways to increase the power though (sink into the support leg with some torque while you torque the opposite way with the kicking hip, snap the leg instead of straight-leg it, etc.) but Shane does none of those things, nor does he mention them.
  • It’s easy to miss. The attacker only has to move his hand an inch or two and the kick will either glance off or miss completely. Even if he doesn’t move his hand, the power arc of the kick is such that you have to hit just right to deliver the impact correctly, which is much harder than it looks and your margin for error is small.
  • Recovery is slow and dangerous. Following through with the leg straightened out makes for a slow recovery. If you miss and the knife is still in the guy’s hand, you’re wide open to be gutted.
  • The track record sucks. Again, the plural of anecdote is not evidence but here’s an anecdote that is relevant to the discussion. I used to know a guy who would learn a new technique and the pick a fight in a bar to test it out. At one point, somebody pulled a knife on him and he thought that was the perfect time to use the crescent kick to disarm his opponent. It worked. But the knife was firmly lodged in his foot and he had to go to the hospital. Ever since, I really don’t like this kick for disarming an attacker (Shane isn’t the first one to propose it.)
  • Dead-arm, stupid attacker. This technique assumes the attacker has a “dead” arm and is unable to move it. What’s more, he’s dumb enough to both leave his knife way out there and forget all about using his other arm, footwork or evasion to handle that kick. Counting on the stupidity of your attacker to make a technique work is not a winning strategy…

Given all that, I really don’t see how you can take this technique seriously and can only come to the conclusion that Shane is wrong in teaching it as a viable knife defense technique. Could it work? Anything’s possible but the likelihood of this working consistently in a high-stress situation, well, the odds aren’t great.

Looking at his background on his site, he shares a whole lot of information about competitive martial arts but very little about self-defense experience. As I’ve written here ad nauseam, expertise in the one doesn’t necessarily give you expertise in the other. The differences are just as important as the similarities.

Here’s the thing:

Shane has 134,455 subscribers to his Youtube channel as of this writing.

That’s a whole lot of people who are fed this misinformation…

I’ll get back to this later.

 

Internet experts

A little while ago, there was a discussion about this topic on a private mailing list I’m on. A bunch of people with Ph.D.s, tenure and a whole lot more were venting their frustration with what we can call “internet knowledge” or “internet experts”.  What is it? It’s the kind of knowledge people get form reading something on the internet (blogs, Wikipedia, etc.) and then thinking they not only understand the subject, but that they know enough to argue with people who have been studying the topic and have been working exclusively in the field for decades. Some people partly blamed Tim Ferris (more in a sec on him), but it’s not just him. I believe the advent of internet knowledge was inevitable.

The very essence of the internet is freely sharing information on a platform that is extremely easy to access. This means that anybody can say anything about everything on the internet. Unfortunately, they do and too many people “miss the chance to be quiet” as they say in my neck of the woods. Funny enough, those with the least amount of actual knowledge and experience are often the most vocal in claiming it and the most aggressive in defending it against critics. This can be explained in part by the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says in a nutshell that people who are unskilled often judge their abilities way too high. Here’s a quote:

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  • tend to overestimate their own level of skill
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  • fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  • recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.

If you’ve ever argued with an internet expert, the first three points will be familiar. The last one only shows up when you see them receiving some training, which is rare because it’s difficult to change a core belief. If that belief is that “you know your shit” then it’s hard to accept otherwise, even if it is pointed out to you. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can apply the knowledge and experience you have in one field straight into a bunch of others. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Expertise in one area doesn’t automatically apply across the board. If it did, there wouldn’t be a need to specialize and that’s exactly what people do in all fields you can think of.

I’m going to quote Carl Sagan, who had a huge influence on me as a child:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

I would add internet experts to that last sentence…

The other side of this coin is that Dunning and Kruger noticed how very experienced and knowledgeable people tend to underestimate their own abilities. Which brings up the old saw of “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.” It’s a cliche but it’s valid. It’s also the only way it can be, given the vast amount of knowledge that is out there. Before you go on, read this article I wrote a while ago. If you don’t want to do it right now, take two minutes to absorb this message. Those of you with a Ph.D. know how hard you have to study to get it. Imagine all the hard work it takes in all the other fields that aren’t yours. Why on earth would you assume your knowledge applies there too?

You didn’t do the work.

 

Pat Flynn

The final part that triggered this article is my exchange with Pat Flynn on Twitter a little while ago. First of, I like Pat. He’s one of the very few internet marketeers I follow. Most of them are full of shit, but Pat delivers not only the goods, he’s extremely transparent: he posts his earnings, explains how he got them (in exquisite detail) and is not afraid to share his mistakes so others can learn from them. I recommend his stuff without question.

However, I did disagree with him on Twitter. Here’s a collage of the exchange, read it first before you go on:

Are you really an expert

I’d like to take a closer look at some of the points raised in this exchange.

The first thing we need to do is define out terms.

The word “expert” comes from the Latin “experior” which means “to try”, “to test”, “to find out” or “to prove”. Here’s how you could view the term then:

You become an expert through a combination of actively doing something, trying it to see how it works and testing what you discover to offer it as proof.

You can do all that on your own or you can go to other experts to get the training you need but either way, you need to work at it. Expertise takes time and effort (which ironically is what the term Kung Fu means: spending time and effort to master something.), you don’t get it for free. We’ll get back to that.

Let’s move on to “curate”. It once again has roots in Latin, “cura(re)” this time, which means “to take care of”, “to care for”, “to see to”. It also has the nuance of describing administration or management. Originally, a curator is the guardian and keeper of something (of value) who typically manages a collection. As you can see, this is in start contrast with being an “expert”. Which brings us to Tim Ferris.

A few years ago he wrote The 4-Hour Workweek and it spawned nothing short of a revolution in the online business world. I read the book then, found some of it interesting, but most of it didn’t particularly impress me. In it, he explains how to become an “expert” by doing things like reading the top three books in a field and curating that information to promote yourself as an expert. That’s the gist of it.

I think that’s nonsense.

It works for getting paid, that’s not the issue, but the only people who consider you an expert are those who know less than you. When you’re faced with a real expert on the same subject, you’ll be unable to keep up.

It also assumes that your self-education is giving you accurate information. Without knowing anything about the field, how do you pick the top three books? You’ll have plenty more to chose from, which one should you discard over another? What do you do when the information in one book contradicts another (welcome to science!)  What’s worse, it’s dishonest and you’re in the business of fooling people if all you do is make them believe you’re an expert. For some reason, this doesn’t bother people who then go out and start a business (often online) that way. If that’s you, look at it this way:

Would you agree to let me perform surgery on you or your loved ones if all I did was read the three top books on medicine?

Can I build your house after reading three books on construction?

Is it OK if I come build a nuclear power plant next to your house without having a degree in nuclear physics?

If you say “yes” to these questions, then you’re an idiot.

If you say “no”, then why not?

It’s the exact same method Ferris describes. If you don’t want trust such fake expertise when your life is on the line or when things really count (building a house is expensive…), then why would you trust it with little things (“little” being very relative indeed)? There’s a reason you need a Ph.D. to do the things in my questions: it takes education, training and experience to do them right.

Ferris often mentions the Pareto Principle in this context, but I believe he misuses it. It’s relatively easy to focus on the 20% and make quick progress. There’s also nothing wrong with that, but that typically means you achieve only basic competence. Expertise comes from knowing the other 80%. Inherent in that is the sad fact that you can’t study those 80% in all fields because there’s just too much information to study and practice. Remember the Ph.D. drawings. Also remember that “expert” means “doing” and not just studying. Which brings me back to Pat.

He brought up two points in our discussion:

The first was that thousands of people were happy with some of his products. I don’t doubt that, but popularity is no measuring stick for expertise. Our friend Fazen has over 130,000 people who like his videos. That doesn’t change a single thing about how terribly wrong he is with that knife defense video.

The second was that curating can turn you into an expert and deliver value. I disagree with the first part for two reasons:

  • How will you know which sources to curate? There’s an endless stream of sources from the internet, books, universities, etc. How will you distinguish the knife technique Fazen shows from the ones that are actually a lot more realistic. Even curators tend to have a Ph.D. before they are entrusted with a museum or a collection…
  • Knowing isn’t doing. Just because you know the theory, doesn’t mean you can pull something off, let alone have actual skill in it. Some aspects only become apparent after you experience/practice them, others only truly show themselves through theoretical study. To be an expert, you need both. To teach, you need even more.

That said, curating has value. I agree with that, but value is something completely separate from the discussion about expertise. The fact that customers find value in certain products does not improve the quality of those products. I firmly believe curating can deliver tremendous value and you most certainly don’t need to be an expert to deliver it. Here’s why.

I’ll use Pat as an example: to the best of my knowledge, he never worked as a security guard. Yet he has an excellent resource for just that niche. His site offers tons of value for people who want to get started as a security guard. There is a lot of value there. But that doesn’t mean I want Pat to guard my house when I need a security guard. I want somebody who actually has the training for and experience with it. However, if I want somebody with extensive skill, knowledge and experience in internet marketing and online business, then I’ll ask him right away. That’s what he’s an expert in and his expertise is perhaps even more valuable than anything his Security Guard site offers.

 

Conclusion

We live in an age where there’s so much information readily available. But that means you have to look at the source of the information as well. People who claim expertise when they don’t have it devalue true expertise. It lowers the bar for everybody, leads to misuse/abuse/problems and that’s when people get hurt. There is nothing wrong with not knowing something or not being an expert on a given subject. There’s also nothing wrong with deferring to the opinion of somebody more knowledgeable than you. E.g.: I have friends who are professors and rocket scientists. They are tons smarter than me (not a big accomplishment, some might say) and when they talk about their field, I shut up and listen. When they talk about other fields, I usually shut up and listen too. But here’s the funny thing about them:

  • They rarely state things in absolutes. It’s never black or white, it’s almost always a nuanced story.
  • They rarely state anything as definitive, because science doesn’t work that way.

In this age of internet experts, I’d like to re-state what the master said to his student:

Don’t teach bullshit, the truth is hard enough as it is.

For this article, I would change it to this:

Don’t pretend to be an expert, the truth is hard enough as it is.

 

UPDATE:

One of my friends pointed out to me that I seem to be implying that getting a Ph.D. makes you an expert. That isn’t what I meant. I used the PhD as a reference point because most people are familiar with the amount of work it takes to get one: loads more than reading some articles on Wikipedia or watching a few Youtube videos.

But in fact, a Ph.D. is only a starting point: it allows you to start working in a field. True expertise comes years later after lots more work and getting decades of experience. That said, compared to somebody with no knowledge of that field, a PhD puts you already so far ahead of them that they would rightfully consider you an expert. It’s all relative, but that was the reason why I used the example. 

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Comments

  1. A truly awesome post Wim! As an academic and martial artist I encounter internet experts much more often than I would like and I think you explore the issue brilliantly.

    Another thing that struck me with Shane’s video was that the entire strategy seemed to be based on the idea that you can dictate the distance to the attacker. I have found that this is very difficult to do if the other guy is committed (in practice, I have no experience of real life situations). Also, the way he explained the technique made me think that many of his followers were not martial artists, which means that their footwork will likely be poorer than mine. From my understanding, this idea that they can control the distance, and that a knife-fight will look like a semi-sparring practice, is as dangerous as the technique itself.

    • Thanks Tomas. Yes indeed about the assumption. That’s what I meant with the “Dead-arm, stupid attacker” thing. A stationary attacker is one thing, but very few of them will conveniently stand still for you to perform your awesome disarm techniques on.
      What he does is package his message very well and make a well-produced video with easy to understand instruction. From that perspective, his video is really good. but that doesn’t change the quality of the content; it’s still bullshit.

  2. Omg,that Shane bloke would get you killed,if you used that crap teqnique,reckless instructing.Rob.

  3. Well said Wim.

    It’s often time consuming getting through your Posts, but the depth and context are always logical and informative/instructional. It seems that the more real knowledge and experience you have with a subject the more obvious the crap is. And the frustrating thing is that so much crap spews from so many sources that should know better (under the influence of politics, agenda or ignorance – or all three – usually).

    Good job!

    • Thanks Dennis.
      I try to not always write epic length posts but often, that’s the only way to put all the elements on the table first and ten bring it all together.
      Yep, it’s a tsunami of crap (I like the ring of that… ) from those who really shouldn’t spew it out. But they do so anyway, for all the wrong reasons. That’s why I loathe politicians so much, BTW. They do so willingly.

  4. This just happened to be related…

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2014/03/never-eat-sushi-at-the-airport.html

    FYI, Seth is sharp and a good read.

  5. Very good post Wim, agree with you on a lot of it for sure. I don’t know Pat Flyn, might have to check him out. I never heard of Shane either, but I agree with you 100% in regards to that knife defense. I’ve had some very fast TKD kickers try that on me (Training knives) and I’ve not had one yet not get cut bad. (Sure, I know that I have an advantage knowing they will kick, but I show them that no matter how fast they are, I can move the knife just a little and they are slicing their own foot or leg.)

    Keep up the great work!

  6. Strongly agree on 99% here, but I do want to qualify the idea that even long term experience with something does not make someone an expert who should be trusted out of hand. The quality of that long experience is extremely important; I’ll trust an Iraq veteran with 3 years experience on matters of combat far sooner than a never deployed peacetime soldier with 20 years experience. I suppose that goes back to the idea of curating verses learning and the quality of the information.

  7. Gye Greene says:

    Heh! Invoking the Pareto Principle is tricky: Having an understanding of 80% of the field is still pretty limited — it’s 4 out of 5 of all available concepts.

    That means that you **don’t** know about 1 in 5 areas within the field. That’s a pretty big “dark zone”.

    Hopefully, of course, the 80% you **do** know about are also the ones that come up the most regularly — and you “missing 20%” are infrequent.

    As you point it, it sounds like “competence”/”training”/”certification” is being confused with “expertise” — a whole ‘nuther level.

    As always, an insightful blog posting. :)

    –GG

  8. Interesting post, always a controversial but interesting topic! :)

  9. Great information. I totally agree

  10. I understand that you are for science and having a PhD makes you an “expert”, but I would argue that professionals in any given sport don’t need a PhD to be considered an “expert”.

  11. Not to mention the so-called experts who put fake “PhDs” behind their names. Best to see the person in action, rather than what might be in print.

  12. Hey Win

    Great article. !
    The use of the Dunning and Kruger paper as an analogy to argue against the perceived lack of knowledge of mere “internet experts”, whilst on the surface, seems plausible, is not actually what Dunning and Kruger were either implying or saying.
    Your trying to use it as a weak form of an appeal to authority which is a logical fallacy.
    What Dunning and Kruger actually showed, had nothing to do with skill level per se.
    “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent…the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
    For example, many “experts”, within many scientific fields, often fail to use methods that are based on rigorous statistical analysis.
    Hence the modern term “data torture”. :)
    Because they believe they have the expertise in that specific area..which they don’t.
    There is also a post-modernist assumption that scientific truth is discernible by measuring a consensus among experts.
    The quote by Sagan, which implies scientists (in his personal experience)have no problems admitting they are wrong..is quaint and might have been possible..many years ago.
    Besides the lack of ability to see a weakness in a belief(see Dunning/kruger) their is also tremendous social/academic and financial/political etc pressure not to admit mistakes, especially if swathes of money and time have gone into specific areas of research/papers.
    Trying to get a corrigendum issued by authors of particular papers is really difficult now days as it also effects the perceived prestige of the Journal that printed it.

    • Hi Markus,

      << Your trying to use it as a weak form of an appeal to authority which is a logical fallacy. << Speaking of fallacies: pretending to know the intent of an author is also one. :-) Aside that, I wrote it could be explained *in part* by the effect. The point I wanted to make is that these internet experts proclaim knowledge and skill but don't know they are wrong and that there are reasons for that. I like Dunning's categorization of them being "misinformed" instead of "uninformed." << For example, many “experts”, within many scientific fields, often fail to use methods that are based on rigorous statistical analysis. << Which is exactly what I wrote and was the point I tried to make with the knife video: expertise in one area doesn’t automatically apply across the board. << The quote by Sagan, which implies scientists (in his personal experience)have no problems admitting they are wrong..is quaint and might have been possible..many years ago. << Then we must know a different kind of scientist. I've seen this happen over and over in my field and know of it in many others. Do note that I did not say people admit they're wrong easily or with joy. You do need to prove it and even then it isn't easy or a fast process. But things that were scientific "truth" 10-20 years ago are no longer so now. E.g.: Lactic acid build up during exercise. The myths about it still exist to this day but no professionals (experts, if you will..) know better because the science on it has advanced. I no longer see them refusing the "new" information.

  13. Hey Win

    “Speaking of fallacies: pretending to know the intent of an author is also one. :-)”

    Pretending to know..is not a “logical fallacy”,,, and I didn’t :)

    “Then we must know a different kind of scientist. I’ve seen this happen over and over in my field and know of it in many others. “

    Kinds of scientists..?
    Your field…must be different to other fields of modern science then. :)
    I am not sure how you would be so cognizant of the results in other fields.
    An excellent writer on failures in many big $ fields now days is Adjunct Professor of Statistics William Briggs.
    http://wmbriggs.com/

    “You do need to prove it and even then it isn’t easy or a fast process. “

    The prove bit is not the hard bit..the impossible part if getting groups to retract something.
    My point was, where large amounts of money and prestige is at stake, then the chances of this happening, diminish.
    As Briggs points out repeatedly.

    all the best

  14. Thanks for the mention and your input, Wim! I’ve come to realize that knife defense is an impossible topic. No matter if you’re a black belt in Krav Maga, or have Filipino Kali experience, there will always be people out there who say your techniques doesn’t work. In fact, I’ve contemplated taking this video down because of the criticism. I do agree with you that the crescent kick isn’t fail-proof, but it’s better than nothing. I genuinely believe it does more good than harm. But I still stand by my original comments: avoiding/running away is your best bet. Take care everybody, and stay safe!

    • Shane,

      There will indeed always be criticism, nothing is perfect. That said, my comment wasn’t that your technique can’t work. I called bullshit because it is such a low percentage move that staking your life on it in a deadly force encounter seems suicidal. Note that I offered arguments for this position as opposed to ad hominem or blanket statements. Any instructional material, including mine, is open to criticism. If it is done via arguments, it can be valuable as opposed to those who just respond with “this sucks.” I can understand that sentiment but a more worthwhile discussion is to find out why it sucks and offer arguments for and against it. Hence my comments.
      As for “better than nothing”, I disagree completely. From Lyndon Johnson: “You should not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harm it would cause if improperly administered.”
      There are good and bad consequences when teaching a technique. If you only focus on the good, it doesn’t make the bad go away. Teaching a low percentage technique in the type of mugging you bring up in your scenario is extremely difficult to pull off in real life. There are plenty of other alternatives, all with their own benefit-to-risk ratio.

  15. Kevin Menard says:

    Hi Wim,

    Late to the party here. I’d like just to mention that a Ph.D. really isn’t an expert yet. They have learned to dance and now have a ticket to the dance, but nothing says they dance well. It takes years afterwords to get to being an expert. I hope to be one someday…

    • Agreed. But I don’t think I claimed that. IIRC, when I wrote that, I used the Ph.D. as a reference point because it’s one that most people are familiar with: how much work and study it takes to get one. So much more than reading stuff on Wikipedia or watching videos on Youtube.
      But I completely agree that it’s only the ticket to the dance and no more. That said, compared to those with no training whatsoever in that field, the Ph.D. is as much an expert as you are to that hypothetical newly minted Ph.D. in your field. They don’t fly you across the globe for your pretty eyes (though they of course are just that, kind Sir): the decades of additional training and experience counts.
      I posted some more in Drew’s thread on Facebook.